The Dogs of Cat Island
Cat Island is an unusual T-shaped barrier island created by currents at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. Remains of a unique WWII training camp can still be seen on the island, which is now part of a national wildlife refuge.
In October 1942, a group of 25 soldiers from Company B of the 100th Infantry Battalion Separate (“separate” because its members were of Japanese descent) were selected for a secret training mission on Cat Island, Mississippi. Transported to adjacent Ship Island under cover of darkness, they were told nothing about their mission.
After spending two weeks on barren, brackish Ship Island the men were finally informed that they’d be taking part in top secret dog training operations. What they weren’t told was that their role in the operation was to act as… bait.
Today the Biloxi-Gulfport SunHerald reported:
Cat Island was turned over to the dogs in World War II. A year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor the barrier island 10 miles off the Mississippi Coast was occupied by about 25 dog trainers and an equal number of dogs, many of them giant breeds such as Irish Wolf Hounds and Great Danes.
The war dogs and the military trainers were on a top secret mission. The temperate, sandy, sometimes marshy Gulf of Mexico island was picked because of its similarity to Pacific islands, and that’s a hint at the secrecy. The dogs were to become weapons against the Japanese.
According to the SunHerald:
The new four-legged residents moving onto Cat Island were pets patriotically donated for the war cause. Unknown to their previous owners, they were to be trained to recognize Japanese by sight and smell and to viciously attack them in packs.
The failed experiment lasted less than four months and resulted in government investigations, unforgettable stories and misinformation that continue today.
The Hawai’i Nisei Story website has a detailed interview with Roy Nosaka of Company B including graphic descriptions of the training activities. The men were first told to encourage the dogs to track and chase them. Then, if the dogs approached them in friendly way, to beat them until they attacked. Nosaka confesses the guilt he felt about being forced to do this work. He speaks about having to deal with alligators and swarms of mosquitos in the island’s swamps, and about the loneliness of the place. He mentions the numerous dog bites he sustained in a matter of fact way that makes it clear he held no grudge for the dogs who, much like him, were forced to do difficult and unpleasant work.
The Nisei were picked because they were loyal U.S. soldiers but Japanese in appearance and, so the theory went, in smell. After the experiment failed and was closed down in five months, an intelligence investigation followed.
The 400 island dogs continued to be trained as sentries, scouts, suicide dogs and to locate wounded soldiers. Americans had donated 18,000 pets to be trained in the country’s four war canine centers.
Amazingly, the vicious attacks did not change Nosaka’s lifelong love of dogs.
After just a few months the project was deemed too controversial to continue. And… it wasn’t the idea that training packs of dogs to attack men solely based on their race that incited the controversy. It was the military’s concern that the pet owners who had donated their dogs to the war effort would be infuriated when they found out that their pets had been trained to attack men and to act as — suicide bombers.
Though these more controversial operations were halted, the island continued to be used as a training base for some time. According to the SunHerald:
Although the Japanese experiment had disbanded, Cat Island continued to be used for secret dog training operations, but now they focused on more sensible tasks. One of the experiments was with the 828th Signal Pigeon Replacement Company, which teamed messenger pigeons with dogs for communication. As historian Lemish put it, “They found the dogs’ true calling, to be able to silently alert when enemy is near, for communication, sentry and to detect explosives.”
The story of Cat Island will be featured in an upcoming episode of PBS’s History Detectives due to air in June of 2009.